Mass tourism: What, why and where

Sep 24, 2020 | Learn about tourism, Tourism management, Types of tourism

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(Last updated on: 19/10/2020)

Mass tourism is a prominent part of the tourism industry. Associated with the traditional package holiday, well-known holiday resorts and famous tourist attractions, many areas both benefit and suffer at the hands of mass tourism. But what exactly is mass tourism and how does it impact the wider tourism industry?

In this article I will explain what mass tourism is, with some useful definitions. I will then outline the characteristics of mass tourism, the evolution of mass tourism and the positive and negative impacts of mass tourism. Lastly, I will provide some examples off destinations that are known for their mass tourism industries.

Mass tourism

What is mass tourism?

Well, the clue is in the title!

Mass tourism is essentially tourism that involves ‘the masses’.

So, what is a mass? Well, this is not exactly clear. But lets just say its usually a lot- like thousands or tens of thousands or more.

Mass tourism can occur in a variety of tourism situations. It could be a coastal resort, such as Benidorm. It could be an area that is home to a major tourist attractions, such as the Great Wall of China. It could be a picturesque village or remote island.

Wherever mass tourism occurs, it relies on the same concept- there are large amounts of tourists, often filling or exceeding capacity, in a given location at one time.

Mass tourism definitions

For decades, mass tourism has been a widely used term in tourism literature as well as in wider society. Yet, to this day there has never been a clearly agreed definition and content.

According to Poon (1993), mass tourism refers to the movement of a large number of organised tourists to popular holiday destinations for recreational purposes. It is a phenomenon which is characterised by the use of standardised package products and mass consumption. Conceptually, this type of tourism features standardized leisure products and experiences packaged for mass tourists.

Hilallali (2003) describes mass tourism as ‘an offspring of industrialisation and democracy, good student of consumption and globalisation.

As noted by Dehoorne et Theng in 2015, Mass tourism is the epitome of aggressively large-scale sold standardized packages stands in stark opposition to elite or luxury tourism.

Naumov and Green (2016) state that mass tourism refers to the movement of a large number of organised tourists to popular holiday destinations for recreational purposes.

Whilst these definitions are useful, I personally feel that they are all missing some important detail. These definitions quite rightly acknowledge the fact that organised packaged tourism products are significant facilitators of mass tourism. But they fail to acknowledge the growing dynamic independent tourist.

In today’s world, consumers are more independent than ever. We can find a cheaper deal online ourselves than what the travel agent is offering. We can plan our own itinerary using the information presented by travel blogs. We don’t need a guide when we can download the information we need on our phones. But just because we are not part of a mass organised group, does not mean that we are not mass tourists.

Thousands of tourists flock to Santorini’s picturesque white streets each July. Thousands of people line the streets of Shanghai to get a look at the light show on the Bund each evening. People struggle to get a photo without the crowds of tourists behind them at the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt. Are all of these people on an organised package holiday? I very much doubt it.

In reality, most attempts to define the concept of mass tourism are indeed outdated, failing to take into account post-modern tourist motivations and behaviours. In light of this, I have developed my own definition of mass tourism below…

Mass tourism can be defined as ‘extreme concentrations of tourists in any one place, resulting in saturation of the place’. Mass tourism cannot be characterised by specific numbers or values, because every destination has different carrying capacities. Rather, mass tourism occurs when there are too many tourists for a destination to comfortably accommodate.

Characteristics of mass tourism

OK, so now we have defined mass tourism, what are the identifying characteristics? The most notable characteristics of mass tourism include: extreme concentrations of tourists; the saturation of a destination, travel in organised groups, good accessibility to a destination, media influence, the stage of consolidation and tourists who are described as psychocentric.

I will explain what each of these means below.

Extreme concentration of tourists

The most obviously characteristic of mass tourism is that there are a lot of tourists. What is a lot, I hear you say? Well, I can’t quite answer that question-sorry.

Each type of tourist destination is different. Some places are big, others are small. In fact, what is a destination? Well, this isn’t entirely clear either.

In the context of mass tourism, a destination could be a city, a holiday resort or the area surrounding a popular tourist attraction. The size of the destination doesn’t actually matter though. The important fact is that there are more tourists that come to the area at a given time than the destination can comfortably cope with.

OK, so here comes another subjective term- what does ‘comfortably cope’ mean? Well, what I mean by this, is that if the tourism has adverse effects as a result of the visitor numbers, it is no longer ‘comfortably coping’. This could include environmental degradation, gentrification or adverse social impacts, for example.

So the major characteristic associated with mass tourism is that there are too many tourists in a given area, big or small.

Learn more about mass tourism in Thailand in this fascinating documentary.

Saturation of a destination

Having too many tourists leads to saturation of a tourist destination.

If a tourist destination is saturated, there are likely to be more tourists than members of the local community. Revenue from tourism-related activities is likely to dominate the economy. Many of the negative economic, environmental and social impacts of tourism are notable.

Mass tourism is generally associated with the concept of overtourism. Overtourism refers to the issue of having too many visitors in a given time in a given place, which impacts negatively on the tourist experience, the host community and environment.

Overtourism is a growing problem that can only be resolved by adopting principles of sustainable tourism management.

Organised groups

Mass tourism is associated with organised and packaged tourism.

Whilst not all mass tourists are package tourists, there is definitely a linear relationship between the two.

By default, group organised holidays bring large amounts of tourists to a destination at the same time. Whether this by via a coach tour, a day trip or through a tour operator, travel in organised groups brings large amounts of tourists together in one place at one time.

Group tourism is usually organised in a place because it has some particular value to the tourist. For example, there are many tours to visit the famous Abu Simbel attraction in Aswan, Egypt. Likewise, Sharm el Sheikh is a popular destination for package holidays and enclave tourism.

Accessibility

Mass tourism is directly associated with good accessibility.

The advent of the low cost airline largely fuelled the growth of the mass tourism industry. Airlines such as easyJet and Wizz Air put new tourist destinations on the map and helped to transport more tourists to existing tourist destinations than areas could [can] comfortable cope with.

Cheap flights has meant that many areas have become saturated with tourism. Cheap flights means that more people can afford to go on holiday, more often.

But accessibility isn’t just about price. The past two decades have seen the number of available flights increase exponentially. This has meant that destinations are more accessible to tourists.

Likewise, many destinations have become more accessible because they have developed their transport infrastructure. New airports, new roadways and improved rail infrastructure has meant that more tourists can reach more destinations around the world than ever before.

Media and promotion

If we don’t know about a place then we don’t go to a place.

The media has placed a significant role in the growth of tourism to particular areas. From episodes of Karl Pilkington’s Idiot Abroad to Travel Man, starring Richard Ayoade, to Leonardo Dicaprio’s famous film, The Beach, there are plenty of places that have made their way to fame through the media.

If you like travel and haven’t seen this film you are missing out! You can watch it here.

One of the most notable developments in the promotion of tourist destinations is the development of social media. Have you ever heard of Insta tourism? Yep- it’s a an actual type of tourism!

Social media platforms have raised awareness of many tourist destinations around the world that had previously featured only deep in our guidebooks.

View this post on Instagram

This is a beautiful shot, right? When a colleague saw this she said 'wow, what an idyllic family photo. You are in a temple surrounded by water!'⠀ ⠀ But do you know what? It's FAKE!⠀ ⠀ This famous photo spot is frequented by hundreds of insta tourists each day, all in search of the perfect Instagram shot. ⠀ ⠀ I visited this place back in 2011 and it was nothing particularly memorable. I have a photo of me stood between these gates, but it is nothing special. A few years back a local had the remarkable idea of holding a mirror beneath a phone camera to creat an illusion of water. AN ILLUSION! Now, hundreds of tourists flock here each day and queue for up to four hours to get the perfect photograph. There is a ticket system and people with stands who take your photos. Each person gets only a few seconds in between the gates. ⠀ ⠀ I think this is an excellent example to show that not everything is as it seems. Yes, we have a beautiful family photograph, but the setting wasn't quite as it might seem! I've written all about Insta tourism and the negative impacts that it has had on destinations and tourist attractions- click the link in my bio and search insta tourism. ⠀ ⠀ By the way- we were not prepared to queue in the heat for this amount of time… we were very lucky that somebody had given up waiting and offered us their ticket… and we only waited twenty minutes for our turn!

A post shared by Dr Hayley Stainton (@the_tourism_teacher) on

In particular, Instagram’s geotagging function enables social media influencers to display the exact location of where their photographs were taken. This has resulted in tourists flocking to areas around the world that had previously experienced little or no tourism.

The stage of consolidation

Butlers tourism area life cycle
Butlers Tourism Area Life Cycle model

Butler, in his Tourism Area Life Cycle model, outlines the way in which a destination grows and evolves. In his model, there is a clear point at which tourist numbers are at their highest. This is the time when tourism is fully developed and is starting to the negative experience impacts associated with overtourism.

When tourism reaches the stage of consolidation in a destination, it is likely that it is also experiencing the concept of mass tourism.

Psychocentric tourists

Plog's model of allocentricity and psychocentricity

Similarly to Butler, Plog looked at tourist motivations, mapping them to particular times during a destination’s development in his model of allocentricity and psychocentricity.

Plog demonstrated in his typological assessment, that when a tourist is classified as a psychometric tourist, they are likely to pertain to mass tourism as their primary choice of holiday type.

Psychocentric tourists typically travel in organised groups. Their holidays are typically organised for them by their travel agent. These travellers seek the familiar. They are happy in the knowledge that their holiday resort will provide them with their home comforts. These tourists enjoy holiday resorts and all inclusive packages. They are components of enclave tourism, meaning that they are likely to stay put in their hotel for the majority of the duration of their holiday. These are often repeat tourists, who choose to visit the same destination year-on-year.

How did mass tourism evolve?

The history of tourism is a long one and mass tourism plays a key role in the growth and development of the tourism industry.

The origins of mass tourism can be traced back to 1851, when Thomas Cook led his first organised group of tourists to the Great Exhibition in London. While his business model did change and adapt over the years, the concept remained the same- organised group travel.

Over time, more and more people were able to travel. After World War ii, people began to have more disposable income and new legislation was brought in to ensure that workers had paid holidays each year.

At the same time, destinations became more developed. They developed their transport infrastructure, promoted their destination for tourism and built the facilities and amenities that tourists required.

Mass tourism notably developed in Western societies since the 1950s. This was the result of a period of strong economic growth. Mass tourism was first seen in Western Europe, North America and Japan as these countries had strong economies and thus the general public were wealthier overall.

Globalisation has also fuelled the mass tourism industry. People can find the familiar on their travels. There are less surprises than there once was. We can research our trip on the Internet and watch travel shows to familiarise ourselves before we travel.

The mass tourism industry really started to boom with the advent of the low cost carrier. The average UK outbound tourist went from having one two week holiday per year to taking a big holiday and a couple of short breaks. People who couldn’t afford to go on holiday before, were now being brought into the market.

Types of mass tourism

Although many people associate mass tourism predominantly with the traditional package holiday model, there are in fact many different types of mass tourism.

Enclave tourism

sun loungers on the deck

Examples of enclave tourism destinations: Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt; Kusadasi, Turkey; Costa Blanca, Spain.

Mass tourism is commonly associated with enclave tourism.

Enclave tourism is essentially tourism that takes place in a space that is segregated from the community outside. It is in its own ‘bubble’, so to speak.

Enclave tourism implies a conscious decision to segregate tourists from the general population. This is usually in the context of an all-inclusive environment such as a cruise ship, hotel or resort complex.

Enclaves are enclosed and self-contained physically, socially, and economically. This means that tourists have hardly any reasons to leave the enclave.

Beach holidays

cottages in the middle of beach

Examples of mass tourism beach destinations: Benidorm, Spain; Phuket, Thailand; Kuta, Bali.

There are many beach areas where the destinations have become overdeveloped. These are most commonly located in Western Europe, although they are found all around the world. It is these overdeveloped beach areas that are most commonly associated with mass tourism.

Mass tourism beach holidays have traditionally been the bread and butter for travel agents. Up until this day, high street travel agents are filled with holidays brochures boasting photo after photo of beautiful beaches and swimming pools.

With the lack of British sunshine and seemingly endless rainy days, it is no surprise that Brits, amongst other nationalities, seek warmer climes. Thomas Cook’s products were among the first to provide British holiday makers with the typical sun, sea and sand experience, but there have since been many more players enter the market.

Skiing

two man hiking on snow mountain

Examples of mass ski destinations: Andorra, Italy; Chamonix, France; Breckonridge, USA.

There are many ski resorts that have developed to such a stage that they can now be classified as mass tourism destinations.

Popular throughout the winter months, many tourists flock to ski destinations for their holiday. This is especially popular in the Alps in Europe and the Rockies in the USA and Canada.

Ski holidays are also often sold as a packaged product by travel agents, composing of flights, transfers, accommodation and ski rental/lessons.

Theme parks

brown and red lighted carousel
Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

Examples of mass tourism in theme parks: Universal Studios Florida, USA; Alton Towers, UK; Disney Shanghai, China.

Theme parks attract large amounts of tourists.

Disney Land, Paris attracts around 15 million tourists each year, Disney Land in Tokyo has approximately 18 million visitors and Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney Florida has more than 20 million tourists each year! Wow, that’s a lot!

People who visit theme parks also often provide a tourism boost for local areas too. People may choose to eat at nearby restaurants or stay in nearby hotels.

Events

group of people

Mass tourism events: Hogmonay, Edinburgh, UK; Rio Carnival, Brazil; San Fermin, Spain.

Mass tourism occurs when large numbers of people undertake tourism-related activities in the same place at the same time. This is often the case with major events.

From the Olympics to the Day of the Dead Festival in Mexico, events attract tourists all over the world.

Mass tourism caused from events can out a strain on locals areas, which may not be equipped to deal with the influx of visitors.

Major tourist attractions

ancient fortress on green hill

Examples of major tourist attractions attracting the masses: The Eiffel Tower, France; The Pyramids of Giza, Egypt; The Great Wall, China.

Many tourists will travel to an area to visit a particular tourist attraction. Whether this is a museum in Paris, a war memorial in Washington or an underground cave in Jeju, South Korea, tourist attractions are often the main appeal of a tourist destination.

Major tourist attractions can attract masses of tourists, who then spend time in the surrounding area, thus making the area a mass tourism destination.

Cruise

white cruise ship

Examples of mass tourism cruise areas: The Caribbean; the Mediterranean.

Cruise tourism is one of the most popular types of tourism.

Cruises come in all shapes and sizes and the smaller ones are obviously not examples of mass tourism. However, some cruise ships are so big that they are the size of a small city!

The largest cruise ships in the world have a capacity of more than 5000 tourists. These tourists will disembark en mass when the ship docks at various locations, causing an influx of tourists to said destinations over a short period of time.

Mountain climbing

accomplishment action adult adventure

Examples of mountain climbing where tourist numbers exceed capacity: Mount Everest; Mount Kilimanjaro.

Mass tourism when climbing a mountain? Surely not? Well actually- yes.

OK so you are not getting thousands of tourists like you might on a cruise ship or in a beach resort, but like I explained earlier, mass tourism is not about specific numbers- it is when the numbers exceed capacity.

Sadly, there have been many stories in recent years of capacity issues when climbing mountains. The most notable is on Mount Everest, where tourists have dies as a result of queuing at high altitude.

Learn why people have been dying on Mount Everest in this short video clip.

Positive impacts of mass tourism

Whilst mass tourism is most commonly discussed because of its negative impacts, there are actually some positive impacts of mass tourism too.

Mass tourism makes money. That’s the number one motivator for all destinations who allow areas to evolve into mass tourism destinations (not sure what I mean? Take a look at Butler’s Tourism Area Life Cycle model). After all, money is what makes the world go round, right?

Mass tourism brings lots of tourists. Lots of tourists spend lots of money. This supports economic growth in the local area and enables the destination to spend or reinvest the money that is made in a way that is appropriate for that particular area. Some destinations may build more hotels. Other may make financial investments. Some may spend more money on public health services or education.

However they choose to spend their money, it is money which is the motivation for tourism development.

Mass tourism creates many jobs. This also helps to boost the local economy as well as supporting livelihoods. Jobs can be directly related to tourism (i.e. a hotel waiter or a holiday representative) or they can be indirectly related to tourism (i.e. the fisherman who supplies fish to the hotels).

You can read more about the positive economic impacts of tourism here.

Negative impacts of mass tourism

Mass tourism has gained a pretty bad reputation in recent years. If you Google the term ‘mass tourism’ you will be largely greeted with articles that discuss the negative impacts on the environment and society.

Mass tourism creates intense environmental pressures due to the fact that such activity involves a large number of tourists in small areas. The environmental impacts of tourism include aspects such as littering, erosion, displacement of animals, damage to flora and fauna and reduction in air quality, to name but a few.

Mass tourism can also cause significant social impacts. Gentrification, increases in crime, loss of culture and authenticity and cultural ignorance are just some of the ways that large amount of tourists in a given area can negatively effect the local society.

Learn about the top ten countries ruined by mass tourism.

The other major problem is economic leakage. Whilst mass tourism creates significant revenue, not all of this money remains in the destination. In fact, because mass tourism is closely associated with all inclusive holidays and enclave tourism, it experiences more economic leakage than other areas of the tourism industry.

Economic leakage is when the money raised leaks out of the area. This is largely due to multinational chains operating within the tourism system.

If you eat McDonalds, most of your money goes back to America.

If you buy a can of Coke, most of your money goes back to America.

If you stay in a Hilton Hotel, most of your money goes back to America.

Get the picture?

How can we manage mass tourism in a sustainable way?

The key to managing mass tourism in a sustainable way is to minimise visitor numbers. OK, so that sounds counterintuitive, right? Wrong.

Yes, mass tourism is great because it brings in lots of money. BUT the problem is that it is not sustainable. Destinations cannot continue to exceed their capacity indefinitely.

As I explained above, there are generally more negative impacts associated with mass tourism than there are positive. But that doesn’t mean that mass tourism doesn’t have to stop altogether. There are many methods to manage tourism destinations in a more sustainable manner.

One way to manage mass tourism better is to provide incentives to help distribute tourists evenly throughout the year and to avoid the peaks and troughs that come with seasonality. Instead of having the majority of tourists arrive in July and August, for example, a destination could put caps on visitor numbers during this time and instead offer discounted rates at other times of the year.

A destination could temporarily close to allow for some of the environmental damage caused by mass tourism to be repaired. This has been done at Maya Bay in Thailand and on the island of Borocay in the Philippines in recent years, with positive outcomes.

This news clip explains why Borocay was closed to tourists for six months.

Another way to manage mass tourism in a more sustainable way is to introduce smart tourism techniques. These can help to better manage tourist flows, monitor tourist activity and accurately analyse tourist patterns and behaviours. This allows tourism stakeholders to more easily and more accurately implement sustainable tourism principles where possible.

Ultimately, however, sustainable tourism and mass tourism are contradictory terms. Mass tourism is generally viewed as the antithesis of sustainability, due to the large amount of negative impacts that are widely known and documented. That isn’t to say that sustainable mass tourism is impossible, it just requires some very careful tourism planning and management.

Mass tourism destinations

There are many destinations around the world that are classed at mass tourism destinations. Some are resorts, others are major tourist attractions. Some destinations have suffered at the hands of the mass tourism industry for many years and others are new to the scene. In some cases, Governments have [are] implementing changes to better manage tourism or to remove themselves from the mass tourism market.

As much as I would love to discuss each of the mass tourism destinations below, this article is already almost 4000 words long, and I don’t want to bore you! Instead, I will provide a list of mass tourism destinations and if you are interested, you can research these more yourself!

Mass tourism destinations include:

  • Benidorm
  • Alicante
  • Majorca
  • Menorca
  • Tenerife
  • Lanzarote
  • Barcelona
  • Ibiza
  • San
  • Amsterdam
  • Eifell Tower
  • Chamonix
  • Tignes
  • Val-d’Isere
  • Morzine
  • Côte d’Azur
  • Mont St Michael
  • Biarritz
  • San Sebastian
  • Venice
  • Vatican City
  • Pisa
  • Coloseum, Rome
  • Florence
  • Cinque Terre
  • Sardinia
  • Iceland
  • Santorini
  • Mykonos
  • Dubrovnik
  • Neuschwanstein, Germany
  • Malta
  • Hallstatt, Austria
  • Oktoberfest, Munich
  • Stonehenge, UK
  • Prague
  • Budapest
  • Dublin
  • Lake Lucerne, Switzerland
  • Copenhagen
  • Bruges
  • Lisbon
  • Great Wall of China
  • The Bund, Shanghai
  • Terracotta Warriors, Xian
  • Islands of Thailand
  • Bali
  • Borocay
  • Ankor Wat
  • Mount Everest
  • Great Barrier Reef
  • Byron Bay
  • Macchu Picchu
  • Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica
  • The Caribbean islands
  • Several US National Parks
  • Pyramids of Giza, Cairo

Mass tourism: Conclusion

Mass tourism is big business, quite literally. Mass tourism isn’t new, but our awareness of many of the negative impacts that it causes is relatively new. It is only in recent years that we have really started to understand the impacts of our actions and think in a more sustainable way.

As you can see, there are many mass tourism destinations all over the world. Are these destinations and the practices that they are adopting sustainable? Probably not.

It is imperative that we plan and manage our tourism industries in order to keep them alive. To learn more about how we can do this and about the importance of the mass tourism industry, I suggest that you consult the texts below.

Further reading

2 Comments
  1. Robert

    What a superb in-depth article on Mass Tourism. We have experienced both the positive and negative aspects of mass tourism. On recent trips overseas to the Islands of Thailand and in the Philippines, it was most distressing to see the huge amounts of overcrowding in many of the more popular zones. We found ourselves just wanting to escape most of the time. It definitely plays a big part for employment and the local economy, but the negative aspects can be devastating in the long term. A wonderful post every traveler should read. 🙂

    Reply
    • Dr Hayley Stainton

      Thank you for the positive feedback, Robert!

      Reply

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Hi, am Dr Hayley Stainton

I’ve been travelling, studying and teaching travel and tourism since I was 16. Through Tourism Teacher I share my knowledge on the principles and practice of travel and tourism management from both an academic and practical perspective.

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